As Cornell University has won game after game, everyone wanted to know if the Big Red was for real. With about a month remaining in the college lacrosse season, the question now is whether Cornell can go unbeaten and win the NCAA Division I championship.
After Syracuse upset Albany last weekend, No. 1 Cornell remained the only unbeaten team in The Sun's Top 20 rankings. The past two NCAA champions, Johns Hopkins and Virginia, also went through their seasons undefeated. The consensus among a lot of coaches is that Cornell has the talent to win the crown, but because of parity in lacrosse, it's extremely hard to win every game.
But as history shows, not impossible.
"Last year we kind of slipped under the radar screen because of the Duke story," said Virginia coach Dom Starsia, whose Cavaliers finished 17-0 last year. "No one knew who we were until near the end of the season. But everybody knows about Cornell now, and every team is going to be shooting for them. They are going to get every team's best effort every week."
And the Big Red (11-0) won't back down.
But the biggest battle might not come on the field but off it as far as practice and preparation. Winning teams sometimes become complacent, and coaches have to deal with attitudes as much as tinkering with the X's and O's.
"You're dealing with 18- to 22-year-olds," said Princeton coach Bill Tierney, whose undefeated Tigers won the national championship in 1997. "You can talk to them until the sun goes down, but sometimes it's hard to get through to them. So many things happen during the course of those kinds of seasons and you really do get a lot of breaks. You're lucky. There are times when you almost want to lose so you can get it over with, come back and start working for it again."
Starsia laughs. He knows the feeling. There is a constant battle about making changes during the winning streak. No one wants to make changes when you're winning. But sometimes, change might help the team in the immediate future.
"Overall, I would prefer winning because it's better to coach from a position of strength than it is from a position of weakness," Starsia said. "But when you're winning, why make changes? We're reluctant to change when we're winning, and as the stakes get higher at the end of the season, coaches for the most part become conservative.
"I'm not trying to make Jeff's [Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni] job harder," Starsia said, "but I've always tried to keep the word bold nearby. You have to be bold and make changes even when you're winning. I love the way they play the game. They're slick and fun to watch, and play the game the way they like to play it in upstate [New York]. I don't know if there is anybody that could pick the four teams that will make up the final four field, but I like Cornell."
There isn't much to dislike. The Big Red has two or three players at attack, midfield or defense who can dominate. Last week against Princeton, Tierney wanted to shut off Cornell's attack. He did, holding the group to two goals, but the midfield scored eight in a 10-6 Cornell victory.
Cornell has some superb finishers in attackmen David Mitchell (31 goals, 7 assists) and Henry Bartlett (22, 4), and a solid leader who runs the offense in Eric Pittard (26 goals, 20 assists). The Big Red runs two midfields composed of Max Seibald, Brian Clayton and John Glynn, and John Espey, Rocco Romero and Casey Lewis. Cornell simply out-hustles a lot of teams, holding a 419-334 advantage in ground balls.
If the offense isn't clicking, Cornell has the equalizer in two-time All-America goalie Matt McMonagle. He has a .620 save percentage, collecting 116 saves against 337 shots.
It's not a roster of All-Americans, but a team that has been pieced together well. Cornell has former midfielders playing defense and ex-attackmen playing midfield. One of its best long-stick midfielders is Ethan Vedder, who came to Cornell as a goalie.
If you look back at the previous three national champions including Syracuse in 2004, they had one thing in common: senior leadership. Of the current two top teams, both Cornell and Duke have been getting that from their seniors. With Cornell, Bartlett, McMongale and defenseman Mitch Belisle (Severna Park) have established themselves as the senior leaders.
"If you look at the field, most of the teams are young and appear to be stronger next year," Starsia said. "But the two that are playing well and getting that senior leadership are Duke and Cornell. It's no coincidence that they are 1 and 2."